Stifling Knowledge or Creating Shields?

So I wrote a very, very long paper on debating the pros and cons of banning books. Because it is so long, I have put the entire thing below the cut. Forewarning: it is almost 5000 words so you might wanna get comfortable.

Cracking the spine of a book opens up a wealth of knowledge and information. It unveils a whole new world, full of anything from mythical creatures to the explanation of atoms. But, knowledge can be dangerous in the wrong hands – to others or to themselves. Consequently, even as early as 1640, people have debated over how much information people should have access to, leading to book bannings throughout countries, states, towns, and schools. Ultimately, however, the freedom of choice is important in reading because books help build stronger, smarter readers, benefits a child’s development, and provides a healthy space to confront controversial themes. Banning books produces weak and disinterested readers, and results in the same consequences of overparenting.

Historically, books have been banned for a multitude of reasons, all of which can usually be boiled down to a simpler one: limitation of knowledge. In the past, the wealthy and powerful wanted to keep certain types of knowledge out of the hands of the masses, from popes’ censoring anti-Christian texts to all the way back to the forced self-poisoning of Socrates for the “unorthodox” ideas he taught his students. But what about in today’s society?

Our founding fathers clearly knew what they were doing when they included the first amendment, the most commonly cited defence in book banning cases. The first amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (US Constitution 1)” In essence, banning books violates our right to free speech and the expression of it. This is shown in 1982 when a high-schooler named Steven Pico, along with a group of students, made history. They protested their school’s banning of a selection of books on the grounds of the first amendment, where, in Board of Education v Pico, the Supreme Court ruled in the students’ favor (Oyez 1982). However, not all protests are as successful as Pico’s, as some don’t believe that freedom is more important than a futile protest against controversial topics.

In modern times, that same concept of limiting knowledge continues to apply, only now banned books tend to be challenged for a multitude of reasons, some plausible and others as ridiculous as a Wisconsin school banning Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic all because they believed it would, according to a parent, “encourage(s) children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them” (Jamie Leigh 2014). According to the American Library Association, the top three reasons for banning books are: “The material was considered to be ‘sexually explicit,’ the material contained ‘offensive language’, [or] the materials was ‘unsuited to any age group’” (ALA 2016). But is this enough of a reason to prevent someone from reading a book with that material?

While sometimes used interchangeably, there is actually a difference between a book challenge and a banning. The ALA defines the difference as “A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others” (Freedom to Read 2017). Keeping this background information in mind is crucial when debating whether or not is is right to ban books.

English is an incredibly important subject; if someone doesn’t know how to read or write properly, it is unlikely they will get far in life. To this point, books are essential for developing these skills. Studies prove that freedom of book choice ultimately results in stronger readers. Kids who read more have higher test scores, a larger vocabulary, and do better overall in every subject, ultimately resulting in a higher intelligence. A 2011 British Cohort Study, performed by the Center for Longitudinal Studies, discovered that kids who regularly read for pleasure do better in reading, writing, and even math. According to them, “…reading for pleasure had the strongest effect on children’s vocabulary development, but the impact on spelling and maths was still significant. ‘It may seem surprising that reading for pleasure would help to improve children’s maths scores,’ she [Dr. Sullivan] said. ‘But it is likely that strong reading ability will enable children to absorb and understand new information and affect their attainment in all subjects’” (Battye, Claire, & Budge 2013). Thus, continued reading allows for a much richer and more fulfilled life, as kids are able to properly grow and mature. Another study done by the Center concluded that “… reading for pleasure was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents’ level of education. The combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree” (Battye, et. al 2013). In essence, pleasure reading actually assists in children’s’ brain development, which is crucial to becoming a successful adult. So from a developmental standpoint, books are incredibly important, a point reinforced in Christopher J. Ferguson’s article “Is reading “banned” books associated with behavior problems in young readers? The influence of controversial young adult books on the psychological well-being of adolescents.” He states that “First, reading for pleasure, but not assigned school readings were associated with higher GPA. This result suggests that particular emphasis should be placed on encouraging children to read stories that they enjoy. Assigning a particular set of ‘classic’ readings in school may be less productive” (Christopher Ferguson 2014). Essentially, letting students choose what they want to read is more likely to improve their intelligence rather than trying to force them into reading certain “normal” types of literature.

Parenting is a contract balance between freedom and protection. Parents only want to aid a child’s development, never hinder or hurt it. Problems then begin to arise when parents wonder “How much freedom of choice is too much freedom?” No parent wants their children prematurally exposed to darker themes, which is a primary argument in favor of book banning. Unfortunately, as a result of wanting to shield their child, they restrict their access to literature and run the risk of turning them off reading entirely, which can stunt their growth. Parents turn into “helicopter parents” who are extremely overprotective of their child and what they are exposed to. While these terms tend to get thrown out rather jokingly in today’s society, the truth is too much parenting can be just as detrimental to a child’s development. Psychology Today discusses overparenting, stating that “Parental overprotection and so-called helicopter parenting can lead to children growing up with significant personality problems and self-esteem issues” (David Allen 2015), which further reinforces the idea that shielding a child from anything remotely upsetting doesn’t help in their development; in fact, it does the exact opposite as it doesn’t allow them to properly mature or understand the entirety of the world around them. But, when students are allowed the freedom to read unhindered, their creativity, imagination, and even social skills are bolstered. Reading even helps with students with mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, as reading can help relieve stress. The act of losing oneself in a book, diving into a completely different world, is an incredible feeling. Because of the feelings a book elicits, reading helps to develop empathy skills. In his article “How Reading Rewires Your Brain for More Intelligence and Empathy,” Derek Beree writes “…Because reading does in fact make us more intelligent. Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you. All of these benefits require actually reading…” (Beres 2017).  Basically, reading boosts empathy skills as well as the ability to comprehend text. This type of beneficial development shown by reading can also be seen in Ferguson’s discussion of the Uses and Gratifications theory. The theory discusses the possibility of books meeting people’s needs that the real world fails to satisfy. Ferguson states, “Media such as books may, in effect, allow readers to vicariously meet their needs unmet through real life through the actions of characters and heroes with whom they may identify. It may, thus, be more productive to consider book and other media uses from an active user-driven experience such as suggested by Uses and Gratifications Theory (Sherry et al., 2006) rather than by the traditional content-driven theories of traditional effects models such as those promoted by social– cognitive theories or other hypodermic needle models of media effects that imply a direct and passive modeling of media by unwary consumers” (Ferguson 2014). In essence, whatever void someone longs to fill, books can provide for. This can help with student anxiety and depression, as reading can not only help relieve their stress but provide them with a fictional world with with to identify. If kids can identify with something or someone – even fictional – it means they don’t feel so alone. This is why taking away books from children is so questionable, as it can stop kids from reading entirely or take away their only lifeline. Dav Pilkey, author of Captain Underpants, tells the story about a teacher taking away a student’s copy of the novel, deeming it too immature. Pilkey’s response is “…in her attempt to steer her young student toward ‘real literature,’ she’d almost turned him off reading entirely” (Dav Pilkey 2015). In many cases, deciding what students should and should not read can result in taking away a student’s passion for reading, negatively impacting not only their intellect but their emotional intelligence, creativity, imagination, and possibly creating a void – of loneliness, of being misunderstood, etc –  in the student they are unsure of how to fill.

An emotional void in children is something that is universally agreed to be damaging. When kids feel alone or misunderstood, their performance is weakened and their emotional state becomes fragile. By banning “controversial” books, many people are unaware of the fact that they could have removed a lifeline to a child who is severely struggling in their life. Ferguson 8 discusses this, referencing Sherman Alexie’s  – a prominent and controversial author – comments on the topic. Ferguson writes, “In writing on the controversies over such attempted bannings Alexie (2011) notes that the motivation for doing so appears to stem from desire to ‘shield’ children from edgy material. Alexie notes that this may be counterproductive in many instances, however, losing the opportunity for adults and children to discuss issues and material they will inevitably be exposed to and also because many children have already been exposed to these difficult situations in their real lives and books may provide an opportunity for children to explore their own conflicts with relatable characters” (Ferguson 2014). Alexie makes an excellent point: by discussing darker themes with children, it allows them to confront them for the first time in a safe space instead of out in the real world. Or, in the case of some children, it allows them to have a way to open up about difficult situations they themselves have been exposed to in their life. By giving children this safe space, they are able to deal with it in a healthy environment. This also helps children who have dealt with or are currently dealing with similar issues in their life. As Rainbow Rowell, author of Eleanor and Park, said in response to the book being pulled of a Minnesotan school’s shelves, “When these people call ‘Eleanor & Park’ an obscene story, I feel like they’re saying that rising above your situation isn’t possible,” she said. “That if you grow up in an ugly situation, your story isn’t even fit for good people’s ears. That ugly things cancel out everything beautiful” (Rowell 2013). Her statement speaks volumes: few people are willing to acknowledge the fact that, perhaps, these things considered obscene are only considered as such because no one wants think there is anything other than their “normal.” Unfortunately, many people do not believe in exposing older children or teens to issues like sex, death, drugs, racism, or violence, upholding the rather Umbridgeian principal of if they aren’t doing it or it isn’t present in their lives, why would they need to know about it. Or, put more simply, they avoid the darker, more taboo themes that some books contain simply preserve their child’s innocence. While no one wants to traumatize a young child through premature exposure to dark themes, there is a healthy balance between the two. Exposing dark themes to children early and safely lets them deal with troubling issues in a healthy way that will prepare them for similar experiences later in life. And, for any children already dealing with this, lets them identify with comparable situations and not feel so alone and distanced from their peers. In his article, “How Banning Books Marginalizes Children,” Paul Ringer writes, “When librarians and teachers reject works that may be ‘emotionally inappropriate’ for children (a common reason), they’re adhering to the traditional and mostly prevailing view that children’s literature should avoid controversial topics” (Paul Ringer 2016). His use of the world “traditional” is striking; after all, doesn’t society pride itself on being progressive, always finding a better way to do things? So why continue to treat children and teens like glass? There is a reason that bibliotherapy – the process of using books to help people work through their issues – is practiced. It is easy for everyone to find a book or character to emotionally identify with in some way. Knowing that someone out there has similar problems – even if they are fictitious – helps immensely in not feeling so alone. In an interview conducted by Lora Strum, Jay Asher, author of 13 Reasons Why, an extremely controversial – and frequently banned – novel, unintentionally responds to Ringer’s point. She states “Pretty much any story that makes people uncomfortable. Stories about sensitive issues like sex, drugs or, in the case of my book, sexual assault, suicide and teen drinking, are often censored because people just don’t want to talk about those things” (Lora Strum, Jay Asher, 2017). And just like that she makes the point that people should talk about these things. Everyone, at some point in their lives, has to confront one of these issues, whether it is them going through it personally or a loved one. If everyone deals with these issues, it makes sense to educate young children about how to cope with them. Isn’t that what childhood is all about, preparing kids for the real world? Shouldn’t emotional preparation be part of that? At the least, teenagers should be prepared for these things, as too many teenagers use drugs, have sex, drink underage, are raped, or commit suicide. And so consequently, too many teens have experienced death far too young. Asher once again hits the nail on the head when she says “Because of that, today we still think of books for teens as children’s books and so when you write a book that includes sensitive topics, it just seems even more controversial. What’s troubling to me about that is these are issues adults know that teens deal with. Not writing about them makes them something we don’t, or can’t talk about” (Strum, Asher 2017). By banning books including sensitive topics – or refusing to write about these topics altogether – it causes teens to not understand these issues, believe they don’t exist or marginalize anyone who has experienced something considered taboo to talk about in their life, making them feel isolated and misunderstood. By removing these issues from literature, it tells those teens there is not a safe space for them, ultimately driving them farther towards the damaging thing they are trying to escape.

So, to these points, it becomes clear that censorship is not right. Every reader is different, and making an executive decision that affects all of them has disastrous effects. Many people pull books out of children’s hands – either because they believe the book to be immature, such as the Captain Underpants series or because they believe the child is too young to deal with dark themes – and have no idea that they could have turned the child off reading entirely or perhaps pulled away what was, for that child, a lifeline. As Walter Dean Myers puts it, “Book challenges are, primarily, generated by the fear that a book will somehow damage a child by changing what is considered to be a valued norm. In my mind when a book touches upon a controversial subject it is precisely because the norm has already been significantly changed, and the author has had the courage to acknowledge this” (Walter Dean Myers, Sam Adler, & Kelly Gallucci 2014). In essence, controversial books don’t present some crazy, radical way of thinking but rather merely point out the already existing flaws in society that are currently ignored.

As with any good argument, it is important to acknowledge the opposition. In this case, the disputant being those who believe protecting against themes inappropriate – primarily drugs, sex, and violence – for children is more important than freedom of choice. Mark Hemingway, author for The Federalist, wrote an article defending book banning, stating “I admit I was reflexively surprised to learn that my children’s school confiscates any questionable reading material that students might possess. Then again, this is exactly why I send my kids to a private religious school. With the way that public schools are slaloming toward Gomorrah, it is astonishing that any student learns to read. It’s far too much to expect that government schools should take the next necessary step and develop a responsible framework examining how what students read might complement their moral development, to say nothing of the fact contemporary America is so dysfunctional such conversations in public schools tend to deploy platoons of lawyers” (Mark Hemingway 2014). Hemingway’s argument is a common one among pro-book banners. Most of these pro-banners tend to be of the opinion that if the book violates their religious beliefs, no child should read it, even if the child in question is of a different religious affiliation. This is, of course, a faulty line of thinking; there is religious freedom in the USA for a reason. There are multiple religions and they should all be equally respected, meaning not everyone should have to adhere to the same standards that are based off of believes they don’t hold. Not to mention his belief that the government should monitor student reading – and when that is mixed with his religious beliefs regarding books, his argument violates the separation of church and state. Like Justice William Brennan said in the Texas v. Johnson case, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable” (William Brennan 1989). In sum: the government cannot ban an idea or a form of expression of that idea solely because society dislikes it. He also states that he is unsure how kids learn to read when schools are filled with such corruption, perpetuated by certain types of books. Aside from his faulty beliefs regarding the blending of church and state, his argument could make sense. After all, kids certainly won’t learn good reading and writing skills if they are reading poorly-written literature. And, some parents simply don’t want their children learning about certain topics – like racism, homosexuality, or drugs – before they say so, or just because it is against their moral or religious beliefs to talk about. Banning books gives them that control, that ability to restrict what their child learns and believes, retaining command over how they raise their child. But again, overparenting is not always good. And certainly, shielding children from these topics promotes less acceptance for people with difficult pasts, different skin colors, religious beliefs, or sexualities, and ultimately results in an uneducated, unempathetic, and immature child. At some point, “shielding” becomes “preventing them from learning about controversial parts of the world.” It is important to remember that, however a parent decides to raise their own child, they do not have the right to interfere in how another parent chooses to parent their own child. The decision of whether or not a child should be exposed to a more mature theme should be left up to the discretion of the individual parent, not one parent acting for the whole.

A better argument instead of Hemingway’s would be Eleanor Barkhorn’s. She argues that “…when parents complain about what their children read, it shows that books are doing their jobs: affecting young readers so much that they are transformed. It’s scary to think of books being removed from libraries because they’re controversial. But it’s even scarier to think of a country where books are so irrelevant, parents don’t even care enough to complain” (Barkhorn 2017). To her, a controversial book is not one that should be banned or hated; rather that it has served its purpose in making people think and question the status quo, causing young readers to form different beliefs and opinions. Her perspective coincides with Myers’ point about books causing change but differs slightly. Controversial books serve to implement change and cause controversy, which are two key factors in a resulting change. But, she also reminds everyone that, in the end, while a child’s freedom of choice when it comes to books is incredibly important, it’s better for parents to be more involved in their child’s life than less.

But even if parents decide to restrict material only for their own child, a different question arises. Is there even a point? After all, in this day and age of easily-accessible information via the internet, is there really any point to try to limit physical reading materials anymore anyway? Almost every child has access to some form of internet – computer, phone, etc – so is it even possible to limit their information? And, on that note, are the major reasons for banning books even relevant? Take violence for example. According to the Supreme Court, “Related to concerns about video games, in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that video games were no more harmful than other media such as books whereas others have suggested that the interactive nature of video games may render them more harmful than books (e.g., Rockefeller, 2013)” (Ferguson 2014). In essence, there is nothing in a book worse than the explicit violence portrayed in video games or movies, something the preponderance of teens play or watch. So what sense does it make to eradicate an already-fading practice of reading simply to protect against things kids can be exposed to in a multitude of ways?

In the end, banning books is detrimental and quite unnecessary. Parents can individually dictate what their child learns if necessary, as every child matures differently, but the reality is, in this day and age, everything is online and easily accessible. Banning a book only means kids will resort to covert means to gain access to it, as Sherman Alexie acknowledged. Knowing how much good books do for human intellectual, creative, and emotional development, it is easy to conclude that books can only help improve a child’s intellect and emotional state. Banning books only results in misrepresentation and damage to a child’s learning and social skills. And when banning a book to prevent the possible of trauma results in hurting a child’s future, it makes the future one was trying so hard to prevent inevitable. While many people may fear books corrupting their child,  as John Green so eloquently put it, “I don’t believe that books, even bad books, corrupt us. Instead, I believe books challenge and interrogate. They give us windows into the lives of others and give us mirrors so that we can better see ourselves. And ultimately, if you have a worldview that can be undone by a novel, let me submit that the problem is not with the novel” (Green, Myfanwy Collins 2017).

Works Cited

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